Pro/rel should emerge from an open system

As Ted Lasso gets more folks on the promotion/relegation bandwagon for American sports, I think there’s an important point to be made.

The real juice of those systems is their openness. By openness, I mean anybody can start a sports club and enter a team from that club somewhere on the open pyramid. They don’t have to get approval from the other owners of a closed league to do so.

Promotion/relegation then should emerge as the way to slot those clubs into a competitive structure that makes sense based on how good they are, not necessarily how many tickets they sell or how many people watch them on TV in their home market.

I see American soccer moving toward a closed promotion/relegation structure, where there will be promotion/relegation between the closed leagues that still require approval from the other team owners in those leagues to gain entry.

What I predict will happen is that might make things 10-20% more interesting, but it isn’t going to quintuple or 10x support for soccer and then detractors will say, “See, pro/rel doesn’t work!”

But, pro/rel without the openness is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse, it’s just another blah amusement park to make for an easy weekend get away for the locals, but it isn’t going to draw much beyond that.

Why is openness so important?

Because it encourages competition and trials. It will also result in a fair amount of failures, which opponents of open systems point to as a bug. But, I think it’s a feature. It’s the same feature that helps open markets work.

From those failures, we learn some valuable things, like what doesn’t work. As Edison said for each failed attempt to find a filament material for the light bulb, that was just one more thing they tried that didn’t work. Now they know.

I know that provides no comfort to the players and employees of clubs that fail, but I fail to understand why they should have any more guarantees to their job as the rest of us who work for companies that can and do fail.

On the flip side, allowing such openness also occasionally generates some unexpected successes that you would never discover under a closed system that assumes things like ‘you need at least a market of a million in population to support one team.’

For example, you might discover that a market of a million might be able to support multiple teams and spawn some huge crosstown rivalries. Or, you might find that there’s a few dozen small markets that really, really love the sport that can produce clubs that are wildly successful beyond what the experts thought was too small to work.

Ted Lasso effect

As a card carrying member of the tinfoil hat “pro/rel” soccer club, it’s been interesting to see the impact the TV show Ted Lasso has had on the discussion. It’s a good example of how narrative matters.

For years, I’ve been in the wilderness with about 50 people in the U.S. using abstract terms like promotion/relegation, sporting merit and open pyramids to no persuasive avail. “That’ll never work in the U.S.!” is the most common retort.

But the TV show Ted Lasso comes along and presents the concept in narrative form to viewers, which brings them inside what it means, and gives tangible life to those abstract terms.

Suddenly, “sporting merit” makes more sense to Ted Lasso fans, as they come to understand that it means that how well your team does determines their fate. Not only might they win a trophy, but they might also win their way into the next level of competition and a bigger stage.

Suddenly, I’m seeing more folks say, “That would make soccer and other sports in the U.S. a lot more interesting.”

Owners beware.

Did the US Men’s National Team find a goal scorer in the game against Honduras?

I’ve long noticed that American soccer players aren’t necessarily known for their scoring abilities. This is true in the adult leagues I play in and at the pro level.

I wrote about it here when the top scoring American in the MLS was #12.

It hasn’t changed much since then, but the top American comes in at #5 now and that American is the same one that either scored or helped create all of the US goals against Honduras, in his first appearance with the National Team, Ricardo Pepi. The next American in MLS appears at #10.

Now, granted, folks like Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent don’t play in the MLS, but…

…they haven’t produced consistent goals for the U.S. Men’s team, either. That is their job.

While they have a good touch, can control the ball and can create some separation, their finishing looks like most American attempts at scoring — wooden, predictable and fairly easy to cover by goalies.

Pepi made it look easy. He has creativity — which means he’s a bit more unpredictable — and can use multiple parts of his body to direct the ball.

I just think it’s strange, but it’s not surprising. We don’t emphasize creative goal scoring in the U.S. We don’t have places for kids to practice it. We ban them from shooting practice before their games and while fields aren’t being used, because we want to protect the precious grass!

I enjoyed the MLS All-Star Game Skills Challenge

I must admit, I enjoyed the skills competition at the MLS All-Star game.

I think it’s interesting to see the level of skills some of these guys have that do not as apparently surface during games and it was fun.

I think it would be fun to see youth tournaments incorporate similar skills competitions. That might give some kids some extra motivation to work on their skills to maybe capture an individual medal or trophy.

The All-Star game had a challenge for touch, crossing/volleys, shooting, crossbar and passing.

I might add events for dribbling and defending. For dribbling by itself, you could have a freestyle obstacle course to dribble around, nutmeg, wall passes, etc and judge it like a skateboard freestyle — mix of creativity, how they use the course, level of difficulty and execution.

Also, I think it would be fun to have a 1v1 challenge where you have some of the best attackers face off against some of the best defenders. Attacker gets a point for getting past the defender, the defender gets the point by taking the ball. Or something like that.

Or, you could also have a giant battle royal of sharks and minnows and crown the last person standing as the Sharks and Minnows Champ!

More fun with soccer numbers, also why open systems work

The U.S. has about 26,000 high schools. I presume a high portion of those have soccer teams.

The U.S. also has about 1,400 colleges with soccer teams.

These are invisible to most folks when they wonder if there’s enough support for an open soccer pyramid.

My guess as to what would happen in an open pyramid is that the teams from these schools would eventually migrate to the first teams of clubs at various levels of the pyramid.

Within a stone’s throw of my house, there’s about 15 high schools and 4 college teams.

I’ve only been to a few of these games. I have no real reason to go, unless my kid was on one of these teams.

The folks who wonder where support for soccer will come from, seem to expect that my love of soccer alone should cause me to want to attend these matches just to watch soccer. But, I really have no clue who the players are and they are from all over. There’s no connection.

They miss that there’s something deeper in the support, a connection beyond just the sport itself.

For example, what if those 19 teams were replaced with about 7 clubs with a few on the 6th tier of the country’s pyramid and a couple on the 5th tier? What if my kids started playing soccer with those clubs as age 5 or 6? What if I volunteered and helped out at the club? What if I played Sunday adult pickup or league at the club, maybe sometimes against some of the first teamers?

What if, over time, I knew kids that moved up through the club to our first team, then onto higher first teams and eventually to top level? I’m be more interested in watching.

Then I would have more connections. I would be part of the club, not just a spectator. In Europe, that’s called being a ‘supporter’. In the U.S., we confuse the term ‘supporter’ with season ticket holder. We want people just to show up for the superficial entertainment aspect without understanding the connections that go with it.

We already have a lot of the elements. I play Sunday soccer at one place. I coached kids at another. They then played at school which was a whole other thing. An open system can combine all these things into one.

We demand there be the support before moving to the very model that causes there be support, and don’t even realize it.

So, talk of simply adding pro/rel to the USL or the MLS, while it might make things slightly more interesting, but misses the true magic elixir of how an open system builds support from the grassroots up.

An open system has pro/rel. It has the ability for any club to join in somewhere on the pyramid. It has a pyramid that is connected, so comparing results across competitions and levels is more meaningful. It has competitions across those levels, to help level set on the differences.

An open system has incentives for clubs to invite players in that can’t afford pay and incentives for clubs to get these players recognized so they can move up the pyramid, even if the club does not. Heck, it has the incentives for coaches to scout the playgrounds and streets for players.

It also has incentives for supporters to pay attention, because rather than just being a spectator of the sport that buys merch and hot dogs, they are a participant, a true member.

At least that’s what I see when I dive in to what makes open systems in other countries tick.

Fun with soccer numbers

London and LA have similar sized populations in their respective metro areas (~13-14 million).

London has 6 professional football teams in the Premier League.

LA has 2 soccer teams in the MLS.

What if an open pyramid helps grow support for a sport? Could LA have 6 D1 teams?

What if we are waiting for support to grow, while at the same time preventing the very thing that grows support?

Soccer starts at home, exhibit 321

I saw something similar, except it was those who played on their own are still playing. Those who didn’t, aren’t. Even those with who had seemingly ‘natural ability’ and played and practiced as much club ball as they could, aren’t.

‘Pro/rel doesn’t grow support for soccer’

This underpins a common belief that more support is needed for soccer before we can move to pro/rel.

For all the folks who believe this, I have a question:

Did you notice the extreme repulsion European soccer fans had to the idea of a Super League that would not have included pro/rel for the top clubs?

For me, that was a huge signal how pro/rel causes support. It was clear that a big part of what makes football great for them is the idea of ‘sporting merit’, that the teams earn their spot based on their play.

US Open Cup: Thoughts on US Soccer survey

I had the opportunity to participate in the US Soccer Voices survey about the US Open Cup.

Here’s a thought the survey format did not allow me to convey…

In a country with an open soccer pyramid, a competition like the US Open Cup serves as a bureaucracy/bias-buster and a way for reserve players to get play time against top players, to test their mettle.

Bias-busting: A division 1 team should beat a division 3 team by a few goals. If the division 3 team hangs in there, there might be something to be learned. Maybe the division 3 team has a few players that have unfairly been written off by division 1 team managers (biases), and they deserve a second look, or the division 3 team is employing different tactics that deserve some attention, either in copying or maybe it makes the coach worth looking at.

Does this mean this will happen in every single game between a D1 and D3 team? Nope. Most of these game should confirm what we would all expect, the D1 team will win comfortably. But, it’s the 1-in-50 or games where all the soccer community might learn something valuable.

Play time for reserves. Another purpose is to give reserve players more chances to play. In a game that only allows 3 subs per game, it’s tough for reserve players to get play time, so these types of competitions allow for that. That may also impact the conclusions that can be drawn from the first purpose (bias busting), but folks can generally adjust for that (“D3 was within a goal of D1, but D1 only had 2 of their starters).

In the US, the second purpose (play time for reserve players) is meant to be solved by having the reserve players play on the D1 team’s ‘minor league’ squad. But, that doesn’t give that player exposure to D1 players to see how they stack up.

Like most things, US Soccer seems to only see the superficial idea of what the US Open Cup is — a popular event that they can make money on.

They miss out on what it really is: It’s a way for a soccer federation to advance the sport through competition, rather than saddle it with bureaucracy.

The survey seemed focus on determining whether the ‘minor league’ teams of D1 teams be included in the competition.

Using the above rationale, they should. In competition, the more teams the better. I don’t think they should be allowed to bring down starters from their D1 teams, just so their minor league team can win some hardware. But, all teams should be able to participate in that each one can add a bit of knowledge to the pot of discovering top players, effective tactics and top coaches.

I think it’s useful to consider that US Soccer should see itself more of an organizer of a ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition than as the overlords of soccer (which I believe is how they view their role now).

In a battle of the bands, the idea is to encourage as many bands in the competition as possible and let them battle it out.

Missing from multi-million soccer complexes

Space for teams to warm-up, including goals. For a country that spends so much effort getting kids participating in soccer, we make it difficult for them to practice shooting.

Play areas for kids on the sidelines to go play some pickup, like a mini-pitch. It would be good to have one of these that’s accessible when the complex isn’t locked up, too.

Shooting/passing walls. At most empty goals at a soccer complex I see kids taking shots. Just think how many more shots they could take if the ball bounced back to them. Somehow our country got an abundance of tennis rebounding walls for tennis players to practice their skills on, but that concept has escaped the soccer community.